The Concrete Utopia of Poetry

From Culture and Domination by John Brenkman. 

© 1989 by Cornel University Press. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

From “Beautiful Illusion” to a Poetics of Revolt

Marxist cultural theorists and literary critics have always resisted and attempted to overcome the debilitating effects of the inaugural paradigm of Marxist cultural theory. Just as the historians’ attempts to reinsert the formative processes of culture and politics into the analysis of class and collective action are either distorted by the paradigm’s limitations or have to break down its most basic premises, so too our efforts at cultural interpretation and literary criticism within the intellectual-political tradition of Marxism encounter such limitations and breaks. I have argued in the previous chapter that the Marxian paradigm began to congeal when Marx abandoned his incipient, largely undeveloped conception of culture as a set of material-social practices, and consequently tended to reduce culture to “consciousness,” and to obscure the complex links between culture and politics in favor of a conception that drives both, separately and categorically, from political economy. What then has this meant for the theory and interpretation, specifically, of such cultural practices as art and literature, especially since the supposition of the primacy of political economy has seldom been unquestionably accepted by Marxist critics themselves?

It has meant, first of all, that Marxist criticism does not fully recognize the extent to which the practices of artistic production and aesthetic reception are embedded in moral-political relations and are a site of conflict over the moral-political valuations that inform our participation in social relations more generally. Instead, this problematic tends to be displaced, and obscured, by the supposedly more fundamental question of the relation of the artwork and “society” conceived as a totality. Since we never have more than a kind of theoretical image of “society,” the presupposition that the genuine social and historical significance of an artwork lies primarily in its relation to the social totality causes this theoretical image to serve as the implicit a priori of literary interpretation and analysis. Since the image of “society” is drawn even in Critical Marxism from categories of the economy-from Lukacs’s image of relations of production and class consciousness to the Frankfurt School’s image of generalized commodification and of “total administration”-, the priority of “society” over “culture” is at work in the interpretive process even when the relation of artwork and totality is explicitly construed to deny such a priority.

This persistence of the base/superstructure model has been amply shown by Raymond Williams. The artwork/totality relation may be construed as “reflection” and “typicality” as in Lukacs’s literary criticism, or as “mediation” and “correspondence” as in Adorno and Benjamin, or as “homology” as in Lucien Goldmann. Each of these conceptions separates society and culture categorically; the theoretical image of the former takes precedence over the interpretive encounter with the latter, and neither “domain” gets approached as a complex of interrelated material-social practices. For Williams, the limitation of these various efforts to relate the artwork to the social totality shows most tellingly in their inadequacy in approaching contemporary culture, that is, the complex of practices in which we ourselves directly participate: “None of the dualist theories, expressed as reflection or mediation, and none of the formalist and structuralist theories, expressed in variants of correspondence or homology, can be fully carried through to contemporary practice, since in different ways they all depend on a known history, a known structure, known products. Analytic relations can be handled in this way; practical relations hardly at all.”  The same argument, it seems to me, holds true for the analysis of works from the past, since our “contemporary practice” includes the interpretive reconstruction and political construction of cultural traditions and heritages. As I have already argued with regard to critical hermeneutics and political-discursive practices, aesthetic reception and interpretation are themselves practices through which we participate in context-bound and open-ended conflicts of cultural valuation and in what Laclau and Mouffe call the political articulation of “society.”

In what follows I will test this perspective against some broad reflections on aesthetics and on poetry that have come from the tradition of Critical Marxism, through a consideration of poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Blake’s contribution to our cultural, and political, heritage lies in the response that his poetry made to the changing relation of art to the evolution of bourgeois society; writing in the volatile decades following 1789, Blake responded both to the possibilities and promises opened by the “democratic revolution” and to the ongoing institutionalization of capitalist social relations. An English Jacobin, he was also a poet who himself reflected constantly on the historical and political possibilities of “imagination.” For Blake, poetry is an active imposing of imagination or fantasy against dominant values and institutions. Casting himself in the double role of visionary and voice of condemnation, he attributed both a utopian and a negative power to poetic writing. And it is indeed an interplay of the utopian and the critical, of imagination and negation, that makes his writing resonate with the social and aesthetic preoccupations of such thinkers as Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and T. W. Adorno. At the same time, Blake’s poetry encourages us to consider anew how the politics of revaluation can shape the project of a poet’s work and the inner dynamics of poetic language, its processes of figuration, its status as a linguistic act, its forms and techniques, and its effects within reception and interpretation.

From Bloch I have taken the phrase concrete utopia. Bloch meant by this that latent utopian possibilities are contained in the experiences of freedom and self-organization which social groups and classes possess, intermittently and fragmentedly, in their everyday existence, political practices, myths, and artistic endeavors. These latent tendencies have as their heritage all the unfinished or abortive efforts in history to extend justice and happiness. The heritage of utopia is thus a discontinuous history, one that must be constructed from cultural traditions and the popular struggles and revolts of the past. The question we can draw from Bloch’s reflections is this: In what ways is poetry a bearer of utopian hope, of the historical latency that is at once within and beyond society?

From Marcuse I will borrow a thesis about art and literature that he advanced in his last published work, The Aesthetic Dimension: “The inner logic of the work of art terminates in the emergence of another reason, another sensibility, which defy the rationality and sensibility incorporated in the dominant social institutions.” The phrase “terminates in the emergence of” suggests, first, that art is utopian insofar as it anticipates new orders of reason and sensibility that can be secured only through political action and social transformation, and, second, that this utopian anticipation is nonetheless concrete insofar as it stems from what is realized aesthetically in the artwork. Marcuse’s thesis leads to a second question about lyric and society: How does the “inner logic” of a poem at the same time manifest a counterlogic against the constraining interactions organized by society?

While Bloch and Marcuse help to frame the questions that a socially critical study of poetry needs to address, their own aesthetic reflections rest on suppositions that cannot be left unchallenged. Bloch maintains that great artworks are part ideology, part authentic utopia. The first task of analysis is to dissolve the ideological shell of the work by exposing the ways its serves particular rather than general interests and legitimates the forms of domination prevalent in its own society; once this ideological shell is dissolved, the utopian kernel of the work is supposed to shine through, a radiant core of meanings and images expressing the strivings and hopes of humanity. Bloch’s conception of interpretation shares with the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer the insight that cultural meanings come forward only from historically situated works and are appropriated only in historically situated contexts. Nevertheless, he tends to view the valid meanings of culture as part of a semantic storehouse that preserves itself intact across historical periods and epochs. Hence the questionable notion that interpretation can with assurance separate the valid and true aspect of a work from its ideological and false part. Such a notion goes directly against the grain of Bloch’s original insight. Concrete utopia precisely does not derive from any pregiven goal of the historical process; the shape of the utopian is a product of the new valuations of justice, freedom, happiness, and so on, which are forged in processes of political struggle and interpretive conflicts. By the same token, the hermeneutical “recovery” of the heritage of utopia has no sure ground of meaning or foothold in truth from which we could then glean the valid significations and discard the ideological shell of a particular work. Bloch’s conception of valid meaning and ideological falsehood shares the problems I identified earlier in Habermas’s adaptation of Benjamin’s idea of “semantic potentials”; both approaches are driven to postulate an essential and separated stratum within communicative practices which are otherwise “functionalized” to ideological purposes of legitimation. At that point, once again the coercive and nonreciprocal aspects of these practices are given a purely external determination. They are derived from social relations presumed to be already constituted independent of the practice in question.

Marcuse’s aesthetic reflections accentuate the unity of artistic form. Transcribing Schillerian aesthetics into socially critical terms, he attributes a utopian and critical power to art on the basis of the sharp contrast that individuals experience between the unity and harmony they apprehend in the artwork and the disharmony and conflict that characterize the social relations they encounter in everyday life. This line of argument reverses the main intention of his 1937 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” by underscoring the critical rather than the adaptive effects of the experience of art as a compensation for social reality. First in the context of the social and political movements of the 1960s in Counterrevolution and Revolt and then in The Aesthetic Dimension, Marcuse undertakes to rescue the aesthetic experience of bourgeois culture from the bourgeois idea of culture. Consumer society’s relentless assault on art through a commodity culture makes it necessary, according to Marcuse, to restore the uniqueness and autonomy of aesthetic experience.

The shift in polemical purpose from the 1937 essay to the writings of the 1970s is, however, more an extension than a contradiction of the earlier position. The indictment of affirmative culture had already implied that the artwork’s separateness and wholeness were, at least potentially, a critique of the social reality from which it separated itself. Marcuse counters the directions taken by the idea of cultural revolution in the 1960s with a renewed insistence on the two-sidedness of the aesthetic:

At stake is the “affirmative character” of bourgeois culture, by virtue of which art serves to beautify and justify the established order. The aesthetic form responds to the misery of the isolated bourgeois individual by celebrating universal humanity, to physical deprivation by exalting the beauty of the soul, to external servitude by elevating the value of inner freedom.

But this affirmation has its own dialectic. There is no work of art which does not break its affirmative stance by the “power of the negative,” which does not, in its very structure, evoke the words, the images, the music of another reality, of another order repelled by the existing one and yet alive in memory and anticipation, alive in what happens to men and women, and in their rebellion against it.

The Aesthetic Dimension extends this defense of the separated art of bourgeois society. According to Marcuse’s thesis, art rejects the divided order of society by adhering to the specifically aesthetic aim of achieving a Beautiful Illusion (schone Schein). Art constitutes the affective and utopian support of a critical consciousness of society. This is not to say that it is a form of critical consciousness. To the contrary, Marcuse’s later aesthetics insists that art has an affective rather than cognitive power and that its value lies in the aesthetic sublimation of reality rather than in any critical reflection on reality. In this way, Marcuse alters Marxism’s conception of art as a mode of illusory consciousness without questioning the categorical framework within which that conception arose. For Marcuse, art is indeed an illusion or appearance for consciousness. But its mode of separation and difference from social reality-that is, the socially organized real material activity which Marx also sharply differentiated from art-is so complete as to turn art into a contradiction of existing society. The postulated contrast between the wholeness of aesthetic form and the dividedness of social reality thus becomes something like the affective analogue of the critical theorist’s cognitive condemnation of that same reality. The classical Marxian divide between “society” and “culture” reasserts itself in the modified form of the divide between theoretical understanding and aesthetic experience. While this modification may seem significantly to alter the valuation of “art,” it does so by so thoroughly privileging the affective and “aesthetic” dimension of reception over the interpretive or hermeneutical dimension as to virtually eliminate the concreteness of aesthetic understanding and valuation. The specificity of actual artworks and the discriminating, concretizing work of interpretation are subordinated to the wholly generalized social interpretation of aesthetic experience per se.

Against Marcuse I will advance the alternative thesis that the social dialectic of art does not arise from the conflict between a divided reality and a unified work, but rather takes the form of conflicts within the work, including the conflict between its unity and its division. I am guided in part by Adorno’s notion, expressed in his essay “Lyric Poetry and Society,” that the criticism of poetry needs to attend “to ways in which various levels of society’s inner contradictory relationships manifest themselves in the poet’s speaking.” We will also, however, have to examine critically Adorno’s view of the relationship of modern lyric and society, for he tends to view the unifying movement of a text as the shape taken by its constitutively antagonistic relation to “society” as a totality. The demand for “something purely individual” from lyric poetry is, he argues, “in itself social in nature. It implies a protest against a social condition which every individual experiences as hostile, distant, cold, and oppressive; and this social condition impresses itself on the poetic form in a negative way: the more heavily social conditions weigh, the more unrelentingly the poem resists, refusing to give into any heteronomy, and constituting itself purely according to its own laws.” By contrast, I do not think that we can presuppose that the unifying dimension of the work is-necessarily and categorically-the manifestation of a resistance to oppressive social conditions, any more than we can presuppose the opposite, namely, that its unifying dimension is the mark of its subjugation to “ideological closure.” Such judgments have to be made contextually and through specific interpretations.

My thesis that the social counterlogic of a poem arises from its internal contradictoriness as a text, not from its wholeness as a “beautiful appearance,” is based on a very different premise, namely, that literature is a practice that acts upon language and therefore enters into a complex relation to those language practices–or discourses-that shape the social relations of the context in which it is produced and of the context in which it is received. The utopian power of poetry can only lie in its concrete connections, as a language practice, with its relevant social contexts rather than in its capacity either to separate itself from those contexts or to set itself above them.

Aesthetic receptivity is not an affective experience galvanized by either the unity of form as conceived by Marcuse or the autonomous principle of artistic construction in Adorno’s sense. Poetic language solicits, incites, calls for a reading that at once lets the effects of poetic condensation erupt across the poem and ties those effects to the situation or act of writing itself. Reading always entails this double movement-receptivity to a language that is multivalent and overdetermined and moments of decision in which the multivalence and overdetermination are reconnected to the place or situation from which the poem has arisen. And this site of the poem’s genesis is social. An analogy might be made between the reading of poetry and psychoanalytic interpretation. The analyst listens with what Freud called a suspended or floating attention in order to hear what reverberates within the subject’s discourse and its silences. On the other side of the dialogue, the subject is pressed toward what Lacan called the “moment to conclude,” where he or she feels the pressure of the unconscious and integrates it into his or her actual discourse with the analyst, allowing the unconscious to interrupt the false continuities and coherence which up to then have resisted it. The two sides of reading poetry are an interplay of this kind between floating attention and the moment-to-conclude. The reader, however, is more like the patient than the analyst, in that interpretations, usually in the name of their own coherence, tend to resist the effects of the poetic text. Such decisions always take place, even when they are masked, as in the rhetoric of deconstructive criticism. Every interpretive moment-to-conclude links the interpretation and the text as the two historically-and socially-situated poles of aesthetic experience. The transaction between writing and reading is thus at the same time an encounter between the social situation of literary production and the social situation of literary reception. Just as the cultural heritage is not given but is constructed through this transaction and this encounter, so too aesthetic experience is not given but is formed in the interplay of writing and reading.

Blake understood the relation between writing and reading as a form of struggle. “Opposition is true Friendship”-this proverb concludes one of the “memorable fancies” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake invents an encounter between himself and an Angel whom Blake challenges “to shew me my eternal lot,” after the Angel has bid him to “consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity.” The Angel takes him beneath the earth to look upon the void in which appears the orthodox vision of the Inferno, filled with “black & white spiders,” “a black tempest,” “a cataract of blood mixed with fire,” “the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent,” and even “the head of Leviathan … advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.” When the Angel leaves Blake behind, this vision of eternal doom disappears:

My friend the Angel climb’d up from his station into the mill; I remain’d alone, & then this appearance was no more, but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sung to the harp, & his theme was, The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.

But I arose, and sought for the mill, & there I found my Angel, who surprised asked me, how I escaped?

I answered. All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics: for when you ran away, I found myself on a bank by moonlight hearing a harper. But now we have seen my eternal lot, shall I shew you yours? he laughed at my proposal; but I by force caught him in my arms, & flew westerly thro’ the night ….

Blake’s parable is of the struggle between the angelic imagination of hell and the infernal imagination of heaven. When Blake forces the Angel to see heaven in the mode of the diabolical imagination, a place where monkeys and baboons chained together engage in an eternal orgy of cannibalism and self-cannibalism, the Angel recoils:

So the Angel said: thy phantasy has imposed upon me & thou oughtest to be ashamed.

This ends their brief friendship, because Blake will not tolerate the Angel’s inability to see that he too has created a vision through the imagination, the degraded imagination of orthodox religion and philosophy:

I answered: we impose upon one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.

Blake practiced the writing of poetry not in order to unveil objects of contemplation or to preserve the kernel of unvarying truth or to produce the harmonies of the beautiful illusion, but rather as the active imposition of “imagination” or “fantasy” as a form of discursive struggle against the dominant values organizing the social experiences and practices in which he participated…

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